Finally, I enjoyed on my visit attending the exhibition of his drawings, to see how these had a changing role in his creative practice through his career, which lasted 7 decades. The exhibition was organised chronologically by decade, starting in the 1920s with his life drawings, and finishing with the works he produced towards the end of his life. It was interesting to note that it was in light of his drawings in the Second World War that his career really took off, despite this not being what he is best known for today. (Pictures below are taken from a book as no photography was allowed in the exhibition)
In the 1930s he began developing his own individual style and used drawing as a tool for developing ideas for his sculptures.
In the 1940s, the war effort meant that he worked almost exclusively in drawings, and was commissioned to document the London Blitz, producing sketches and large drawings of Londoners sheltering in the London underground. I like the use of perspective in the below tunnel, emphasising the sheer volume of people down there (barely perceptible as figures) disappearing into the distance, they seem unending – quite evocative and haunting. This motif was repeated in the portrait beneath.
The above work is one of a triptych of Head studies shown in the exhibition from the same period. This was during the phase where he was now using maquettes primarily to develop his sculpture ideas, so drawing was more for creative release. As such his approach was more experimental, and took him into printmaking and tapestry. These Head drawings were done with crayon as a wax resist against watercolour and ink – I find these very effective and am interested to give this a try myself.
I also liked the linear effect in his charcoal pieces here above – the tendril-like branches in silhouette are very effective here. I believe that ‘The Artists Hands’ is one of his more well-known drawing motifs.
Drawing, even for people who cannot draw, even for people not trying to produce a good drawing, it makes you look more intensely. Just looking alone has no grit in it, has no sort of mental struggle or difficulty. That only happens while you are drawing.
One of the aims I had for this course was to get more confident in my drawing, and for this to become more instinctive for me. I have enjoyed as part of that exploring the one line drawing style of Calder, but here follows some more descriptive drawing that I have completed first in a recent workshop, at a life drawing class (my first!) and a cast study I did in the RA recently.
Here we were given a few hours to really study and work into our drawing – I had not before used this technique of building up a layer of charcoal to begin with, but I enjoyed how this made the process somewhat more malleable – it was forgiving to making adjustments along the way. I enjoyed also using chalk and different charcoals to add further depth and texture here. I found it difficult to get the perspective quite right on this and I think the top of the foot (the concentric circles) are not as occluded as they ought, but I am overall pleased with this work.
I chose this slightly altered pose for the object so that I could focus more on the interesting texture and tone of the top of the foot (the more interesting element for me). I felt that otherwise my work would be too generalised to warrant the length of sitting!
I enjoy working with charcoal for the responsiveness to weight and immediacy you have with it.
I enjoyed the life drawing class, though found it very hard going! Working at pace in quick succession was quite the challenge. I enjoyed experimenting with the soluble graphite stick (which I had not previously used) for the tonality you could achieve quite quickly and the sketchy quality you still achieve. I am most pleased with the 10 x 2 min sketch charcoal piece though. I think this allowed me to release my inhibitions somewhat and be more confident in my lines firstly since there was a time pressure, and secondly since I knew that in overlapping them any ‘errors’ might be obscured. I enjoyed in this experimenting with dynamism and scale and the more successful elements are towards the bottom of the work I think where you see the legs. I’d be interested to try this approach again but using the one-line drawing method.
I am pleased with the tone in this piece, though I think here too my perspective could have been refined (i.e. more hunch to the left side/proximity of the torso to the thigh). I perhaps self-edited here once more and did not fully capture the tonality of the genital region..! I was a little conscious of being in public at that point.
As I was leaving the Collection having completed my study of the torso, I was struck by this painting for depicting what I had just done myself!
I was particularly interested to read here that women were not allowed to draw from life at the time of this painting, and so had to study from casts of classical sculpture. This would certainly have been a hindrance to the development of their craft. I would be interested to learn more about the challenges women faced in art history and the broader picture of why they went unrecognised.
They used to sell wrapping paper at the League and we found that it was pretty good for drawing. You folded a sheet into eight rectangles and it would fit in your pocket. With this we used to pass our time drawing people in the subway on our way to and fro.
I seemed to have a knack for doing it with a single line.
Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)
Calder didn’t start pursuing a career in art until the aged of 24 in 1922, when he began taking night drawing classes in New York, having found the working life following his graduation from engineering to be much too dull. He found his start as an illustrator at the National Police Gazette capturing athletic events including one time a circus (which was to serve as inspiration for the work that would catapult his career).
Once he had his own studio, he immediately began experimenting in wood and wire, and then wire alone. His works are recognisably playful and characterful and were sometimes called caricatures.
One cannot describe his works – one must see them…The figures are amazing and in these works of art all artistic rules are suspended for the moment.
B. Werner review of Calder’s ‘Portraits, Sculptures, Wire Forms’ Nierendorf Galerie, April 1929
His networking in Paris was crucial to his gaining renown in the art world, and also was to provide a key catalyst to his work – none more so than his visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930.
It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on… I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate…
This one visit gave me a shock that started things.
Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract’. So now, at thirty two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.
Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)
Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending the stairs’ is the result of the desire for motion. Here he also eliminated representative form…
Therefore why not plastic forms in motion?…Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions.
Alexander Calder, exhibition notes at Berkshire Museum, Aug 1933
I had not heard of the mention of ‘plastic forms’ before, and initially thought this referred only to the material plastic. Upon researching this though I understand it now to mean anything that has the capacity for the artist to shape it, so in most cases for Calder, wire.
The move into kinetic or moving sculpture was groundbreaking for Calder – here he not only was playing with form and space in his wire drawings, but also time and movement. Though some were powered by motors, others were only subject to the movement of air or external stimuli.
The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof… the idea of detached bodies floating in space…
There is the idea of something floating – not supported – the use of a very long thread, or a long arm in cantilever…seems to best approximate this freedom from the earth.
Thus what I produce is not precisely what I have in mind – but a sort of sketch, a man-made approximation
That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential, at least as long as they have something else in theirs.
Alexander Calder, ‘What Abstract Art means to me’, 1950
I have enjoyed learning more about Calder, after I was first fascinated by one of his mobiles at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. One thing that I am eager to try and take into my own practice is to try the line drawing technique. Til now I think I have shied away from this for fear of making a mistake, but I am intrigued by the unique forms that come from this method, and the simplicity of the finished work, so will resolve to experiment with this!
In this workshop, we were introduced to 3 different approaches to drawing, and performed exercises that incorporated an element of chance within them: stochastic, system, and collaborative. We were then invited to expand on these exercises further.
The above image is what I produced for the stochastic (organic) drawing exercise. One by one I dropped pieces of string onto my paper and drew where they had fallen. I was keen to capture the difference in texture and shape demonstrated by each string type and varied my marks and weight with the charcoal to do so. I think this has been quite effective. In doing this exercise, the longer I went on (say after the first 6 drops) the more editorial I became with how the string fell – I still dropped it from a height and observed how it had landed, but if the composition was not quite to my liking I tried again without documenting this shape. It was interesting that I gained confidence/a sense of agency once I had a feel for the task at hand – that there was a sort of dance in a way of the relinquishing and regaining of control with chance.
The second exercise we performed was the system drawing. Here we were told to draw a grid and then populate 6 squares to the side with 6 colours. Then we were told we would be rolling a dice and painting 6 consecutive shapes within the grid with the colour for square 6 if we rolled a 6, or 2 consecutive shapes with colour 2 if we rolled a 2, etc.
The third approach was collaborative drawing. Here we would receive an instruction from Myfanwy and add an element to the paper in front of us (e.g. draw a line). We would then pass the paper on as instructed (e.g. pass it twice to your left, and rotate it through 90 degrees). We continued like this for some time, adding what we had for breakfast, a drawing of something in the room, a pattern, etc. Finally, we were instructed to retrieve the paper that we had started with and made our first mark on (the line). We could then add to or remove elements in order to make it uniquely our own.
I enjoyed this exercise, though I find the artefact itself I am left with does not fully capture the process I myself went on. Since I had created equivalent elements for each of those seen in my finished work, but they are not here seen, I feel there is something lost along the way. I also dislike that the orientation of the piece is difficult to really nail down, with the elements often being drawn at contrasting ones. But it was an interesting exercise.
For my self-guided piece, I was keen to do another piece that captured the element of dropping. In the session we had been introduced to the below work by Jean Arp (that does appear to have been choreographed somewhat) and I was keen to try this method out for myself.
Then above an A1 piece of paper that I had placed on the floor, one by one I (without aiming/looking blankly into the distance) dropped the pieces approximately above the page. I varied the position of my arms in relation to the paper, but maintained roughly a height of 1.5m.
For my second attempt, I decided to introduce an element of system/rule to the dropping, and not drop all the pieces of paper in one sequence. Here I chose to drop the coloured pieces one by one first, and then reappraise prior to dropping only a selection of the black pieces. This was interesting, but I still found that the pieces formed a pile/clump.
I decided to restrict the number of pieces of paper I dropped even further. Here I chose to remove from the collection pieces that did not fully have torn edges (i.e. exclude the pieces that had a straight edge)
I was very interested by the fact that in restricting the number of pieces I used, the composition appeared to coalesce to a form of sorts – here a diagonal stripe. Below the piece following sticking down with Pritt stick.
I chose to repeat this with the remaining pieces that I had excluded onto another piece of paper.